This post was originally published on November 25, 2019, and has since been updated.
I first heard about the idea of food freedom while listening to a podcast episode with Whole30 Founder and author of Food Freedom Forever, Melissa Hartwig, and I’ll have to admit, I thought it was kind of a hoax. How can you live by a diet that’s as restricting as Whole30, while simultaneously feeling completely free around food and your eating habits? As the episode went on I realized that I had the concept of food freedom all wrong. See, I had thought of food freedom in a more literal sense—that you are free to eat what you want when you want it (must be nice, right?)—but in reality, it’s quite the opposite. Here’s how Melissa Hartwig sums it up:
“If I had to describe “food freedom” in one sentence, it’s this: Food freedom is feeling in control of the food that you eat, instead of food controlling you. It’s about indulging when it’s worth it, passing when it isn’t, and never feeling guilt or shame for doing either. It’s about taking the morality out of food, and recognizing you are not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person based on what’s your plate. True food freedom means you never again feel powerless over food.”
As someone who has struggled with negative thought patterns around food for years, this really struck a chord with me. “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” “Why did I let myself eat so much.” “This is going to derail me for the rest of the day…” are things I found myself saying time and again in my head. I thought this way of thinking was something I wouldn’t ever be able to get away from, and I had basically written myself off as someone who would probably never have positive, satisfied, or much less proud thoughts when it came to my relationship with food and body image. When I got home later that night, I looked into food freedom deeper and discovered that a lot of people are talking about how it’s changed their lives in ways that go way beyond the plate.
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The idea of “food freedom” has many layers, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s been a struggle for me to break out of my black and white way of thinking about food as “good” or “bad”. Curious and inspired to start my own journey, I chatted with a registered dietician and mindfulness eating expert, Lisa Hayim, about practical steps we can all take towards achieving food freedom. Founder of health and wellness site The Well Necessities, Lisa’s goal is to make you a more mindful eater and ultimately provide you with the freedom that comes when you realize your self-worth is not tied to your body image, food choices, or how much you exercise.
Scroll on for our interview with Lisa, and her advice for ridding yourself of guilty thoughts around food this holiday season.
How do you define food freedom?
Food freedom is the ability to be flexible with your food choices and use your values to help you determine what truly matters to you vs. what you’re currently emphasizing. When we achieve food freedom, we feel a tremendous amount of power. It’s surprising to those that finally move away from their “controls” like dieting or counting calories/macros to learn that the true power and control they were after comes from giving up control.
I know it sounds backward and hard to believe, but when we take the tremendous amount of pressure we put on our external bodies off and begin to trust the internal process at work, we recognize that no food is “bad” and that eating food that isn’t “nutritionally perfect” does not have the power to derail us or truly affect our bodies—so long as we stay present with the process and notice our internal responses. In other words, don’t let your brain tell you that you blew it! The only way you can “blow it” is by believing those words and falling into the mindset of thinking “it doesn’t matter now, I may as well keep going.”
How can one start to shift their mindset around food and negative thought patterns?
The best thing to do is to start to really notice your thoughts around food. A lot of us have food fears or concrete thoughts about what/when/how much we “should eat” ingrained into us. Once we start to pick them apart (one at a time!) and challenge them, we can start to build our inner wisdom. That’s a modern mindful eating term used to describe the knowledge you start to gather about your unique body.
It seems like your experience with mindful eating has a more modern approach. Tell us about the shift. What are the key differences between traditional mindful eating (TME) vs. modern mindful eating?
Traditional Intuitive eating was created in the 80’s by two dietitians to help people reject the diet mentality and help those heal from chronic dieting. While gentle nutrition is part of the traditional process, it is a small fraction of what is taught. I started studying mindful eating to complement my own journey, and I could really see how this was a new approach to eating that so many could benefit from—but a big part of me knew that it also felt… dated. I just wanted to be able to eat to nourish, eat for pleasure (even if the food wasn’t as nutritious), and be able to expand my headspace to encompass thoughts outside of just food. I wanted to LIVE—to go on dates, spend time with family, and hang with friends and laugh over a glass of wine without “tuning in” to every bite of food.
My approach has lots of similarities to traditional mindful eating, but I’d say the main difference is that I hone in on nutrition education early on, as I think that the best way to ditch food fears is to understand that there is nothing to fear with food. When we dive into the science, (in a simple way!), it makes it a lot easier to eat foods we previously were scared of. Modern mindful eating also extends a bit further outside of talking about food rules. I want my students to start to understand who they are and gain the confidence to be the people they were put on earth to be. Self-work is a big part of the process!
In this post, I explain how mindful eating opened doors for me, but modern mindful eating changed the game.
How do you plan to enjoy the holidays without over-indulging?
I don’t believe in indulging. But please – hear me out here. To indulge literally means to give in to pleasure. We should give into pleasure as humans—we have enough pain. So it’s not that I don’t think you should have the brownie or the stuffing—it’s that I don’t want you to think of eating these foods as being too special. The problem comes when we see eating certain foods as “indulging”. I explain my construct much more in this post.
Returning to the holidays, I do have some tips on what you can do to not get overfull, or to not waste your energy on overthinking about food so you can be present for your families:
Find your safe spot.
As soon as you arrive at any venue, find a place where you feel comfortable. Mine is usually a bathroom since it’s quiet, but it doesn’t have to be. I usually go there first and catch my breath and check-in with myself. Throughout the meal, I may need to retreat there, I may not. Many people are able to check in with themselves without leaving the table. I find the holidays to be harder—the laughter is loud, and the pour is heavy. In some instances, there could be some family triggers—all of which throw you off. Therefore, I need a place to just “stop” to check in with myself, maybe give myself a pep talk, and simply evaluate where I’m at.
Try not to walk into any event without having eaten within the past three hours. This does not mean you should eat entirely before and feel awkward while you’re there. If you walk into a party, dinner, or happy hour hungry then you’re less likely to overeat. You know how this goes. At parties, we forfeit control—we don’t decide what is served when it’s served, or how it is served. All we can do is prepare the best we can. Don’t lose your cool over those salty-sweet brie and jelly sandwiches. Stay calm, don’t go in starving, and continue to ask yourself what you want and how much you want. And above all, enjoy yourself—you’re there to have fun, after all!
Decide What You Love.
Buffets and big dinner parties make it hard to choose what to eat. With good smells all around, we get side-tracked and overdo it (you know, leaving with your pants unbuttoned… been there, but TBH it’s been years since I’ve gotten to that discomfort.) Instead, commit to one thing you really want and stay focused on it. Love sweet potatoes? Great! Get them and be excited about eating them. Try not to reach for something you’re kind of “eh” about. Take a look around, decide what you really love—what’s calling your name—and skip the stuff that doesn’t excite you. Pro tip: don’t make these decisions before you get there. Let your body lead.
Remember: Only the first few bites are for pleasure.
When we tune in, we realize our brains and taste buds move on much faster than our minds. Tune in to those first few bites of cake (or whatever you think you can’t control yourself around) and remember any more than the first few bites are just for energy which we also need for nourishment. You’ll soon realize that the taste has dulled and is nowhere near intense as that first bite.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself.
Feel like you need to check out and can’t tune in with your hunger/desires? I get it, it happens! That’s where “outer wisdom” comes in. If you’re going to be mindlessly eating, make sure it’s something nutritious or not the most energy-dense food. No one wants to have a painfully full feeling in their stomach, without having even enjoyed the meal! Eat, have fun, be merry—after all, it is what the holidays are all about.
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